Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh

Developer/Publisher:  Sierra
Year Released:  1996

Review by Gordon Aplin (March, 1997)
phantas2.jpgThis is not a sequel to the first Phantasmagoria but a completely different story with completely different characters. It continues down the same path as its namesake in that it is an 'interactive movie' though, in some respects, it does represent an improvement on the earlier game, especially on the production side. For a start the video sequences are smoother and more 'realistic' as, for the most part, the actors are not portrayed against a computer-rendered background, and the quality of the acting is, I think, quite good overall. There is also a slight improvement in the gameplay, especially in the latter part of the game, though, in my opinion, still not enough to tempt dedicated adventurers.

On the other hand, I thought the first game in this series had more atmosphere and it was much more interesting exploring that spooky old house. In A Puzzle of Flesh you largely explore a more modern office complex and institutional locations.

Question your sanity
You control the actions of Curtis Craig, convincingly played by Paul Morgan Stetler, who is a troubled young man with a tormented past. The disturbing introduction shows you receiving electroconvulsive therapy in an asylum, but as the story opens your life seems back on track. You have a job as a copywriter with Wyntech, a pharmaceutical company, you have a steady girlfriend, and a pet rat called Blob. It isn't long, however, before weird things start happening -- your computer attacks you and you start having nightmarish flashbacks to your childhood. Later on your colleagues at work are being gruesomely murdered one by one and you must face the possibility that you are the murderer -- perhaps you are not cured after all ....

Overall, the gamplay is fairly circumscribed because of the nature of the game. For the first half at least the 'interaction' is very often confined to finding the hotspot and clicking on it to initiate another video sequence, or talking to other characters and using every item in your inventory on them to see what response you get. Talking, in this context, means clicking on a character until the conversation is exhausted. There are, of course, some adventure-type or inventory-based puzzles, such as finding passwords and opening an intriguing tool box, but sometimes these seem contrived as in the 'get-the-wallet' charade before you can leave home. It's a complete mystery to me why Curtis couldn't have found an easier way do this. Although, as mentioned above, there is more to do in this respect at the end of the game.

Video sequences
As with the first Phantasmagoria title, many of the video sequences in this game are of mundane, oft repeated actions such as opening and closing a drawer, or entering a room, and it is tempting just to click through them after the first time except that you may miss an important scene if you do. Fortunately, there is a video play back function that allows you to replay the scenes you have initiated, even if you clicked through them at the time. This saves having to restore to a previously saved game if you suspect you have missed something.

Speaking of video sequences, I suppose it's only fair that I mention here the controversial bits that will restrict the sale of this game in many places. Yes, there is a good serving of gruesome scenes of the clichéd, shock horror 'B' grade movie variety as well as a disturbing sequence in an asylum and a number of sex scenes including elements of bondage which seemed to me to be completely irrelevant to the story. Working, no doubt, from the premise that "sex and violence sells", the writers probably thought they were on a winner, but I can only hope that they seriously misread the adventure game market. In my opinion no amount of gore or sex scenes can make up for lack of solid gameplay. Still I say this with some trepidation as it seems that Phantasmagoria I, in all its bloody splendour, was Sierra's best selling game ever. Regardless of this I live in hope that the vast majority of dedicated adventurers want to be challenged and involved in a game rather than entertained by bloody video sequences. I know it has been said before, but if people want to watch such a movie it is much cheaper to hire one.

Interface and other technicalities
As you will have gathered by my comments so far this game utilises a single cursor interface that highlights when you pass over a hotspot, or changes to an arrow to indicate places or views to which you can move. Your inventory appears at the bottom of the screen when you move the cursor over it and this also brings up other icons such as your map for travelling and your 'eye' for examining items in more detail. It is possible to combine certain items in your inventory. Above the game window you can also find the video playback icon (alas, you can watch that grizzly murder over and over if you like) and the control panel icon from where you can save, load and quit and change the video and audio options. There is no on-screen text option.

The game is stored on five CDs, each representing a different chapter of the story so there is no need for constant disk swapping. It installs to Windows 95 and, after I sorted out my initial problems with Direct X, it ran just fine. It will also run in DOS, though you may need to download the DOS patch from Sierra first.

Mature audience only
A Puzzle of Flesh is clearly aimed at a 'mature' audience and is not recommended for players under 17 years of age. The story unfolds using both a third person and a first person perspective and it provides two playing modes; 'more intense' where you need to type in a password before play or 'less intense'. Unfortunately, 'intense' relates only to graphic content and not to the difficulty level of the game.

The story itself is intriguing and had a lot of potential but, for me, it struggled to emerge from beneath the dead weight of so many 'special effects'. It's a shame that, with this particular series, Sierra can't decide if they wish to make a movie or a game. Although I think they should be applauded for attempting something different I, for one, hope they don't neglect their more traditional adventuring audience by pursuing this 'interactive movie' path. If you enjoyed the first Phantasmagoria then you may like to give this one a try.

Post Script
A Puzzle of Flesh has recently been released in Australia but it is a censored/cut down version with some nudity/sex scenes removed. The game reviewed above was the full version and was written before the Australian release. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1997. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486-DX4, 12MB RAM, Hard Drive Space (not including space for a Temporary Swap File) Small Install: 10MB (compressed 30 MB) Medium Install: 15MB (compressed 50 MB) Large Install: 23MB (compressed 80 MB) CD-ROM drive, double speed or better, Win95, SVGA video card that supports 640x480x256 colors or better in Windows Sound card with DAC - Sound Blaster compatible, Mouse. Recommended: Pentium, 16MB RAM, Quad speed CD ROM. Also available for Mac.